Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks Game 1: Keys for Each Team

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2014

Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks Game 1: Keys for Each Team

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    The second-round series between the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks appears to be one that tilts heavily toward the defending Stanley Cup champions.

    However, if the Blackhawks want to overlook the Wild because they finished ahead of them in the regular-season standings and beat them in last year's postseason, they will be making a big mistake.

    The Wild are a versatile team that survived a seventh-game overtime on the road against the Colorado Avalanche and moved on. The Wild have leadership in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and they may have found a winning formula in the first round.

    The Blackhawks definitely have the recipe for winning. In addition to bringing home two of the last four Stanley Cup championships, they overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs.

    The first game of the series will be played at the United Center Friday night. Here are the keys to a victory for each team.

Chicago Blackhawks Key: Superstar Leadership

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    Hockey is a game of effort and emotion, and teams that reach the second round of the playoffs almost always have those commodities in spades.

    It's not about which team is more pumped up or which team is ready to play. It's usually not about coaching strategy either.

    It often comes down to talent. The team that has the most talented players who work the hardest and come through at the most important moments is usually going to win.

    That's why the Blackhawks are so confident nearly every time they take the ice. They have perhaps the best talent in the game and the core duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane leads the way. Those two superstars are at the peak of their powers.

    If either Kane or Toews plays his best hockey, it's going to be tough for the Wild to win. If both of them are at the top of their game, it might be impossible.

    Toews tied for the team lead with seven points against the Blues, while Kane was right behind with six. Both players scored overtime goals in the series.

    They are the ideal duo because they compete and bring out the best in each other.

Minnesota Wild Key: Dependable Goaltending

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    There was joy and incredulity in the Minnesota Wild locker room after Mike Yeo's team overcame four one-goal deficits and pulled out a 5-4 victory at the Pepsi Center Wednesday night over the Colorado Avalanche.

    Nino Niederreiter played the role of hero, as he scored a goal in the third period and the winner in overtime when he twisted a wrister by Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov.

    The instant that puck hit the net, the Wild poured over the bench to congratulate Niederreiter and everyone else on the ice, including goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.

    Yes, that's right, Bryzgalov. The same goalie who had been pulled in Game 2 of the series against the Avs was called on in relief of rookie Darcy Kuemper (2.03 goals-against average, .913 save percentage in this year's playoffs) in the third period.

    Kuemper's head appeared to collide with Ryan Suter's knee duirng the game, and the goalie was clearly woozy when he was relieved.

    Bryzgalov (4.25 GAA, .826 save percentage) was forced to make one tough save on Paul Stastny after entering the game. The Wild may have to go with Bryzgalov if Kuemper is unavailable for the Wild.

    According to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune, Kuemper's status is not known yet. Since it is the playoffs, Yeo may not say anything definitive prior to Friday night's faceoff. Either Keumper will be in the lineup or his place will be taken by Bryzgalov, who has a rather erratic postseason history.

    No matter who is in net, the Wild are going to need a top-level performance from their goaltender to win in Chicago.

Chicago Blackhawks Key: Consistency from Corey Crawford

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    This one is an old story for the Blackhawks, but it doesn't make it any less important.

    Corey Crawford is capable of dominating, making near-impossible stops and winning the game for the Blackhawks. He is also capable of whiffing on a 35-foot wrist shot from the boards.

    Overall, Crawford is an outstanding goalie who nearly always comes up with the biggest saves at the most important moments. The Blackhawks never would have won the Stanley Cup last year without him.

    However, Crawford had an ordinary regular season (2.26 GAA, .917 save percentage) and was below average in the first two games against the Blues. He let up overtime goals in both games, including one on a mediocre shot by St. Louis defenseman Barret Jackman that got under his pads.

    Crawford has a tendency to give up at least one stoppable goal in most games. Against an underrated Wild team, that could cause big problems.

    The Blackhawks need Crawford to play consistently if they are going to come out with a victory on home ice in Game 1.

Minnesota Wild Key: Continued Offensive Resiliency

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    It wasn't just the final score that was impressive for the Wild, it was the way they came back time after time in the seventh game.

    Four times, the Wild fell behind a very motivated and competitive Colorado Avalanche team in the decisive seventh game. Each time, the Wild came back and tied the score.

    Even though they had not won in Colorado in their first three attempts, they played well enough to hold leads late in the third period in two of the games.

    That means the Wild could have won five of the six previous games. They refused to get discouraged at any point in the series, and they believed. That belief showed itself in Game 7 as Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley and Nino Niederreiter all scored their first goals of the series.

    Defenseman Jared Spurgeon scored a brilliant goal—his second of the series—when he outwaited Semyon Varlamov and then pumped home the tying goal late in the third period. 

    Niederreiter added his second goal of the night in overtime to win it.

    The Wild offered little resistance against the Blackhawks in last year's playoffs. This team appears to be better and more resilient. It will need to continue to demonstrate that in Game 1.

Chicago Blackhawks Key: Secondary Contributions

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    The role players have to do their thing for the Blackhawks to survive and advance.

    You might think it's enough for Kane, Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to get their points and show off their talent, but it's not.

    The Blackhawks need players like Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad and Johnny Oduya to contribute. That means playing the physical game, going in the corners and winning the puck battles. 

    Bickell beat the Wild with an overtime goal in last year's postseason, Shaw scored the Game 1 winner vs. the Boston Bruins in triple overtime and Bickell scored tying goal against Boston in the memorable sixth game.

    Saad has the speed and creativity to bust open any game, while Oduya can close things down in his own zone, retrieve the puck and start a play up the ice with speed and precision.

    The Blackhawks need their role players to come through in Game 1.

Minnesota Wild Key: Suter Must Dominate

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    There will be a heavy burden on Ryan Suter throughout the series against the Blackhawks, and he needs to assert himself in Game 1 of the series.

    Suter was not nominated for the Norris Trophy this year, but he may be the best defenseman in the league. He must play like it against an explosive offensive team like the Blackhawks.

    Suter is a tower of strength at 6'1" and 198 pounds. Even if he gives up a few pounds to opposing forwards, he often wins the battle because of his toughness and power.

    Suter averaged 29:47 of ice time in the series against the Avs, and it would not be a surprise if he is on the ice even more than that against Chicago. He seemingly never tires, which helps him take on a leadership role with the rest of the Wild defense, which is quite underrated.

    Jonas Brodin will be a superstar within a couple of years and heady Jared Spurgeon is seemingly getting better every game.

    However, Suter must show he is the best defenseman on the ice in Game 1 against the Blackhawks for the Wild to win.